Papers, Please

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Say what you will about the borderline-sociopaths on 4chan, but they know how to get in on the ground floor of video games. Ever heard of Minecraft? You know, the all-conquering indie game beloved by children? It’s pretty safe to say that without 4chan, it might’ve languished in obscurity. They turned it from a Swedish hobbyist’s pet project into an underground sensation, where it inevitably spread to the more mainstream parts of the internet, and then out into the wider world. Now you can buy little Minecraft books in Tesco.

It’s a cultural thing. 4chan doesn’t give a shit, no matter how unfunny, annoying, racist, sexist or homophobic it’s being. So it is with their video games. Forget Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty and FIFA, have you played this Japanese game about a depressed girl who sleeps all day and has nightmares? It’s like knowing a raving lunatic who always manages to find the freshest, most interesting music long before the band has a record deal.

It’s a structural thing, too. In most places, content is sorted and segregated. Go here for all your Mass Effect news and discussion, go there for Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, and ne’er the twain shall meet. On 4chan, all the conversations are on one page. You might go to see what everyone’s saying about Paradox’s new title, but there’s a conversation about something with over 600 posts. Might as well see what all the fuss is about.

This is what happened to me with Papers, Please. Around 7 or 8 months ago, I saw a huge thread inviting people to trade tips and strategies for letting people through the border, and everyone kept saying “Glory to Arstotzka!” It looked intriguing, so I downloaded the unfinished beta version and gave it a whirl.

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The game made a big impression on me, and I planned to write on the blog about this as-yet unknown gem to introduce it to others, but there was no need. Mere days after that 4chan thread, Youtube commentators and reviewers picked up on the buzz and started giving Papers, Please a great deal of exposure. In the space of a month, it had been submitted to Steam’s Greenlight service for inclusion on the store. It breezed past the required number of votes, and was shortly scheduled for widespread release as a full title priced at £6.99. From there, it spread to the aforementioned more mainstream parts of the internet. Come the end of the year, and it has featured on pretty much every major site and writer’s Top Ten of 2013, in some cases making the top 3 or even number 1.

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Not bad for a game that’s about stamping visas, and that’s kind of the whole point. I’ve wondered what it is about Papers, Please that took it from an unfinished beta with no mainstream appeal in April to a game of the year in December. I really dig strange little games without much traditional ‘fun’ as long as they’ve got something interesting going on, but most people don’t. They just want to have some of that traditional ‘fun’, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – I just wouldn’t expect them to take to a game like Papers, Please with such enthusiasm. Having personally watched the buzz begin and reach a crescendo over an eight month period, I found myself reaching a very pleasant conclusion: it’s simply that Papers, Please is a brilliantly clever video game that everyone pretty much agrees is deserving of praise. And you don’t know how rare that is in the world of video games.

As I said on Facebook, it’s a comforting reminder that mainstream success isn’t always a result of a staggering marketing budget and blatant pandering: sometimes it’s just because what you’ve made is undeniably brilliant.

Papers, Please is available to buy here, and the original beta can be played for free here.

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